Gaga instructor James Graham says the most important thing is to keep moving. Gaga instructor James Graham says the most important thing is to keep moving. Gaga instructor James Graham says the most important thing is to keep moving. (Photo: Jenn Virskus)

Bay Area going 'Gaga' for modern dance

These dance classes are popping up from San Francisco to New York. We sent our reporter to try one out.

I'm standing in a large, bright room on the second floor of a nondescript building in San Francisco's SOMA district. The room is occupied by the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and there are ballet barres along the wall near the entrance, but this is not a ballet class. I'm in SOMA on this Tuesday evening to take my first Gaga class.

I find a place near the windows, and for lack of knowing what to do, I sit down to feign a stretching position. The first thing you need to know about Gaga is that it's not even dance in the traditional sense; it's a movement language invented by an Israeli dancer named Ohad Naharin. I came across it while researching an article about dancer and choreographer Ella Rothschild. Rothschild was a member of Naharin’s famed Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Israel. Naharin developed his “movement language” over the course of several years with the Batsheva dancers.

The style of dance has taken off around the world. One of its adherents is Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, who honed her dancing skills for the Academy Award-winning "The Black Swan."

It's only taught in a handful of cities in the U.S., but it turns out one of them isn't too far from where I live.

My class is led by local choreographer James Graham, who's been a certified Gaga teacher for the past four years. His route to Gaga was as freeform as the practice itself. In a short interview before class, he told me he'd always been a “mover” as a child, but fell in love with dance at the University of California, Berkeley. He choreographs, performs and teaches modern dance throughout the Bay Area and beyond with his group, the James Graham Dance Theatre. After seeing the Batsheva Dance Company perform, he traveled to Israel to study Gaga with Naharin.

The room slowly fills up – by the time the class starts there are almost 30 of us. I look around at my classmates and remark that everyone is dressed as if they were at home relaxing on the couch and suddenly had to run out the door. While it's clear that some people in the room are dancers, no one is wearing a leotard or tights and there are no matching yoga outfits. Some people wear socks, some don't. The MO of Gaga seems to be “come comfortable.”

Graham moves into the center of the floor and asks for a show of hands for those of us who are taking Gaga for the first time. I'm surprised to see hands go up from about a quarter of the people in the room.

Gaga is the only class at the Conservatory open to the public. It's known as a Gaga People class, which means that anyone is welcome, not just dancers. But according to Graham, his students include members of the San Francisco Ballet, LINES Ballet and ODC Dance Company among others, as well as a number of office workers, musicians, professional athletes, a pilates instructor and this evening, at least one writer.

Graham tells us that we'll be moving for the next hour and whether or not we understand completely his commands, the most important thing is that we continue to move. We start off slowly, swaying side to side. A core principle of Gaga is that there are no mirrors in the room. I recall this as we get started. Graham gives us cues to guide our movement: feel our skin move inside our clothes, feel our bones move inside our skin, feel our clothes become our skin.

It's strange, but it makes sense and isn't too hard to follow along. Our movements range from small (focus on moving the bones in your sternum) to big (make circles with your arms, your legs, your core).

I can't help but look around the room as we continue. I try to remember who had indicated that they were new. Everyone I watch seems to know exactly what they're doing and makes very specific movements. Some people even seem to be performing in some way. I feel silly, but there is something cathartic about moving my body around in all the ways I don't get to while sitting at my desk or even when I'm out for a run.

It occurs to me that maybe everyone feels a little bit silly on the inside, even if they appear to know what they're doing on the outside. I realize that the confidence I see in my classmates may not be so much a confidence of the movements they're performing, but a confidence in the freedom to move.

“Gaga is very open, it's move as you need to move, move as you'd like to move,” Graham tells me.

James is one of only 10 certified Gaga instructors in the U.S.James Graham is one of only 10 certified Gaga instructors in the U.S. (Photo: Jenn Virskus)

Anyone can take Gaga, but Graham admits it might not be for everyone: “Sometimes people aren't ready or not interested in what Gaga asks of you. Gaga asks you to really pay attention to your body, to your sensations, to the inner world, the outer world.”

I can feel that's true. On another day in another situation, I can even imagine myself standing back and looking at this group of people in ratty sweatpants waving their arms around and thinking, “I'm not doing that.” But on this day, fueled by my curiosity and my story assignment, I put my whole self into it. I circle my legs, shake my body and move my spine side to side like seaweed floating in water. I don't open my mouth to roll around my tongue – it's too soon.

These are not, it should be noted, practices that are directly applied to choreography; In case you're wondering, there are no Gaga performances.

“In Gaga we float, we shake, we make circles and curves, but we don't then take that into making a piece and say, 'Let's shake for eight counts, and then over here let's do circles for another eight counts.' That is not really how Gaga is used. I would dare to say that nobody really uses it like that,” Graham says, adding that if he sees two dancers side by side, he can tell who practices Gaga and who doesn't. “There's a different attention to detail, a feeling or sensation, that I can see in their body.”

Outside of Israel, Gaga classes are available in Europe, Asia and North America. A few years ago, Gaga was available in the U.S. only in San Francisco and New York. Now there are classes taking place in Austin, Chicago and St. Paul, but the demand for Gaga is growing a lot faster than the supply of classes because there's no curriculum for becoming a Gaga teacher; it's more of a mentor-mentee relationship. There are only 10 teachers in the U.S., and just over 90 in the world.

Toward the end of class, Graham encourages us to travel throughout the room alternating bigger and bigger movements with small, fast movements, like he's revving up our engines for the evening ahead. When we finish, there's a round of applause. My body feels ache-free and I have a sense that I've released some built-up tension. I'm a little sweaty, but I'm not tired. There's a shared energy in the room, and it feels good.


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Bay Area going 'Gaga' for modern dance
Gaga dance classes are popping up from San Francisco to New York. We sent our reporter to try one out.